Terrelle Pryor (left) and his OSU tattoo (forearm).
The 2012 Ohio State Buckeyes are perfect, undefeated at 12-0 following a 6-7 slump of a season in 2011. They got there by defeating archival Michigan—a game I witnessed from the bitter climes high above the north end zone, an experience that I can say with absolute seriousness was the pinnacle of my life—and they will remain undefeated forever, avoiding that final crucible of all elite college football teams, the bowl game. Ohio State is perfect, but they are of the kind of perfect that one so often finds in sports: with an asterisk.
What has come to be known, quite unimaginatively, as TattooGate, and what I prefer to call The Ink Incident, was the first in a series of NCAA infractions and institutional slip ups that led to Ohio State's rather unceremonious march to history. This report from the Columbus Dispatch details TattooGate exhaustively. Here's a quick digest. In April 2010, then-Buckeyes head coach and sweater-vest fetishist Jim Tressel received numerous emails from Columbus lawyer Chris Cicero, a former team walk-on. In the emails, Cicero revealed to Tressel that numerous players, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, had sold various paraphernalia, including gear and awards, to the owner of a Columbus tattoo parlor.
Rather than report the incident, Tressel "vaguely warned" his players to halt the improprieties, later citing fear for their safety and the risk of interfering with an FBI investigation of the parlor owner, Edward Rife, who was sentenced to three years for drug trafficking and money laundering charges last October. When the US Attorneys office told the university in December 2011 that Buckeye memorabilia had been seized during the Rife investigation, Tressel remained silent.
Key players on the 2010 team who were implicated in the emails were benched for the first games of the 2011 season but allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl, an at-the-time emphatic victory over the SEC's Arkansas Razorbacks. That win has since been vacated in accordance with the NCAA sanctions.
The Ink Incident was merely the beginning of the Buckeye's woes. An embattled Tressel—it is important to note here that, from my perspective, as a fan, and my family's, as denizens either of Columbus proper or of the surrounding areas, there's a feeling that the NCAA was sanctimoniously and unfairly punishing kids for making some bucks off their own personal property under the excuse of protecting some sort of fake idea of athletic innocence—was suspended, then resigned, before the 2012 season. Directly before the 2011 season's opening game against the Akron Zips (whose mascot, I kid you not, is a fucking kangaroo) the school suspended three Buckeye players, running back Jordan Hall and defensive backs Corey Brown and Travis Howard, for accepting $200 in cash during a charity event up in Cleveland held by booster Bobby DiGeronimo.
By October 2011, suspensions were lengthened for some players upon the NCAA's discovery that they received payment for a job with DiGeronimo at rates above the norm, and for hours they had not worked. In light of the repeated offenses, the NCAA tagged the university that November with its second most serious charge, "failure to monitor." Preemptive efforts by Ohio State to self-flagellate and avoid the NCAA's wrath were mostly for naught, and the university would receive, among other things, additional scholarship losses, an extended probation period, vacated wins, and a postseason ban that leaves the 12-0 Buckeyes ineligible to even win their own conference.
If all of this sounds a pinch excessive for some kids, most of whom are poor, making pocket money on the fringes of a system that trades upon their health for millions and millions of dollars, it's because that it is.
Something that they teach you in economics of sport, which was taught to me by hockey coach-cum-Shepherd of Young Minds and unashamed Maple Leafs fan Coach T. J. Manastersky, is that the NCAA operates on a very precise and well understood business model: That of a cartel. If this seems a bit hyperbolic, let's look at the criteria for a cartel, courtesy of Coach. A cartel must posses relevant control of the market, including its entrance and exit points, and the ability to monitor and control those within it, as well as punish insubordination … all of which the NCAA does.
Understanding how a bunch of old white guys in Indianapolis have so thoroughly dominated a product dependent, in reality, upon the whims of children is a long and interesting story that has already been explained in an excellent piece by Taylor Branch for The Atlantic. Long story short, in 1951 the NCAA stuck its finger to the back of a point-shaving Kentucky hoops squad. The Wildcats thought it was a gun, and the cartel mounted the first head on its pike with which to inspire fear and compliance. The complete execution of Southern Methodist University's football program—what is literally referred to as "the death penalty"—and recent dismantling of athletics USC, the shadow of which has just this season been lifted, are more recent flexings of NCAA's muscle.
The bottom line is that the NCAA, despite being a nonprofit and showering viewers with commercials about how most of their charges are "going pro in something other than sports," is first and foremost a money making enterprise. It is not a "player's union," and it seeks to protect students in only the most superficial way, predominately by limiting how much time a student can be kept in practice. If physical well being is not the NCAA's main goal, neither is education. Up until very recently, the NCAA allowed coaches to offer scholarships on a year-by-year basis. If an athlete underperformed, got injured, or in some other way upset the coaching staff, they could have their scholarship removed at the end of the year. Does this sound like a policy meant to assist academically? When the NCAA went to change this egregious rule in a rare showing of human decency, the universities themselves opposed the matter, since having more kids have multi-year scholarships is apparently a terrible burden.
Look again at Ohio State's punishments. Keeping in mind that what you have, at its most egregious, is a group of kids who risk their health, especially in a game whose negative effects are becoming so horrifically documented, trying to find a way to pocket some personal cash, the sanctions look more and more ridiculous. The suspension of Pryor and the crew was well within institutional limits, and is admittedly probably as "fair" a punishment for the "crime" of selling personal property as a cartel could levy, although it is telling that the suspension came after the '11 Sugar Bowl tilt, a marquee matchup and prime money maker in a system of games whose primary goal is to make money.
More ridiculous is the vacating of wins. Do monetary improprieties affect the two areas of a student-athlete's (Branch points out this term marginalizes the students, who lose any protections and privileges either title would have bestowed upon them when they become a hyphenated being the cartel gets to define) life that the NCAA claims to be most concerned with, namely, in order, athletics and academics? Of course not. Keeping in mind the NCAA's primary goal is to make money, the Ink Incident does comprise a concerted effort to fuck the cartel and get one's own. Which is exactly the kind of thing a cartel beheads people for. Or takes their hard earned wins away.
Most offensive is the removal of scholarships from the football program. Last season's USC squad showed that a coach who's smart enough to stockpile scholarships can flirt with relevance for a few seasons longer than expected, which must be frustrating to the cartel. As an effort to de-fang a program which has its teeth firmly in the NCAA's ass, as USC did and Ohio State does, the punishment makes sense. Look at a scholarship purge in terms of academics, however (keeping in mind how sad it is that academics must be explicitly brought to the forefront in a discussion of collegiate sports), and what those scholarship losses really mean is that some hard working student will have that much harder of a time paying for college.
As an Ohio State fan, I am admittedly upset about my Buckeyes not getting the chance to play for a national title, even if I know in my heart we would most likely get hammered. An offense seemingly suffering from dissociative identity disorder—and we are talking drive to drive, here, not game to game—would be completely smothered by Georgia, Alabama, or Notre Dame. What Ohio State can do, however, is almost as fine a consolation prize as beating that school up north and carrying a 12-0 record into posterity. Having the student's on one of the nation's only major unbeatens sit at home this winter provides a chance to pillory the NCAA in a high profile way, which is something both media and the fans should do every chance we can get.
It should be noted that, between the first and second quarters of the Ohio State/Michigan game, the school honored the ten-year anniversary of its 2002 national championship team, a defense-reliant behemoth that got on it like gangbusters, and the transcendent play of one elite offensive weapon, which produced a savage (a 51-17 mauling of Kent State) and uneven (the last-minute "Holy Buckeye" win over Purdue) run to an undefeated regular season—sound familiar?—before shocking a favored Miami squad in double overtime in the desert.
That Buckeye team featured one of my favorite players of all time, tailback Maurice Clarett, perhaps most famous now for a 2006 arrest wherein the police found a hatchet (or, as Columbus legend has it but I have yet been able to confirm, a katana and a zanbato, which I choose to believe were in there), a loaded AK-47 variant, three handguns, and an open bottle of Grey Goose in his SUV, and was coached by none other than Jim Tressel. Both the coach and Clarett were there for the ceremony, and as his players carried Tressel off the field atop their shoulders, the crowd roared in approval.
Fuck the NCAA.